Discovering Hedy Lamarr: Ecstasy (1933)

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Yesterday, one of the women who was considered one of the most beautiful figures of the silver screen would have been 104 years old. She’s not with us anymore, but that’s not a valid excuse not to celebrate her. I’m talking about Hedy Lamarr! It’s my blogging friend Samantha from Musings of a Classic Film Addict (one of my very favourite blogs) who had the great idea to host a blogathon in her honour. I have a confession to make: I had never seen a Hedy Lamarr film before. Why? Too many wonderful actors, too many films to see I guess. So, Samantha’s event was a good reason to finally break the ice.

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But don’t be fooled by the title of this article. Yes, I’m starting to discover Hedy Lamarr through her films, but I had heard about her before. Which classic film addict hasn’t? This Austrian-born woman wasn’t only a reputed actress, but also an important inventor. She and pianist/compositor George Antheil developed a secret system of communication, a transmission principle eventually used for the Bluetooth, GPS, and wifi technology. The most incredible thing about that is that she had no important scientific background. Talk about versatility!

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But we’re not going to talk about science today. I saw my participation in this blogathon has a good occasion to finally watch what is considered one of the most “scandalous” films of the 30s: Ecstasy. This, along with Samson and Delilah is probably the Hedy Lamarr film I had heard the most about. I also liked the idea to write about a non-Hollywoodian film for a change. The Czech-Austrian romantic drama was directed by Gustav Machaty and released in 1933. Hedy Lamarr was then only 19 (she looked older than my 23 years old self), and this really was her break in the movie industry. Was it because of her talent, her beauty, the sexual controversy of the film? In my opinion, it’s a bit everything of that.

Ecstasy‘s story is simple: Eva (Hedy Lamarr – credited as Hedy Kiesler) is a young woman who marries a wealthy but much older man, Emil (Zvonimir Rogoz). It doesn’t take her long to discover that they don’t share any common interests and that her wedding is doomed to catastrophe. Refusing to live a loveless marriage, she returns to her father’s place and starts divorce procedures. One day, she meets the handsome Adam (Aribert Mog) who becomes her lover.

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What really makes this film isn’t really the story (which seems to lack originality at first sight), but the way it is delivered to us, the way it is made. Because Ecstasy is a captivating film.

When she played in the film, Hedy Lamarr was still only known as an Austrian actress and hasn’t yet been “victim” of the Hollywood industry. She was young and her beauty was still a natural and innocent one. Of course, I don’t say she wasn’t beautiful anymore when she shot movies in Hollywood, but she looked different and obviously more “conform” to the American beauty standards. But her face always had this sort of luminosity. Talking about the way she looked seems a bit superficial, but I think it helps us understand her acting in Ecstasy, the technic she chose to portray her character. I’m not too familiar with movie director Gustav Machaty, but after watching this film, I can say he was able to lead actors in a way to give them an impeccable credibility and also a way to act very naturally (except maybe for when Hedy yells “father!” – this is said in a too theatrical way for a film, in my opinion). The way she looks at the camera, at the other actors, is sometimes just incredible. She’s delicate and magical. The emotions are more vehiculated by the look in the eyes of the character than in their words.

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And that’s one of the particularities of the film: it almost feels like a silent film. In the beginning, there are almost no words exchanged between Lamarr and Rogoz but we don’t need them to understand what’s going on and what will happen. Reactions, sighs, and sights are enough to give us the essence of the action and the meaning of the story. Then, they eventually speak, but never to say grandiose things that could seem exaggerated. This makes a great contrast with Hollywood films. Great dialogues can contribute to the greatness of a film, and that’s what directors like Billy Wilder or even Ingmar Bergman were able to master with an impressive tact, but, sometimes, those aren’t necessary. And Machaty understood perfectly that talking for talking can be stupid. This actually reminds me of a personal anecdote (not something that happened to me, but I witnessed the scene). I was dining at the Portuguese restaurant where my sister used to work and there was a couple at another table and during all their dinner, they barely exchange a word. At first sight, that was weird because silences can feel uncomfortable. Did they quarrel? Did they really have nothing to say to each other? Well, they didn’t look mad at each other which could draw another conclusion: maybe they actually didn’t need to speak to understand each other and that their mutual presence was enough. If it was the case, well, there’s something very powerful about that. And that’s the way it felt about Ecstasy. As a matter of fact, the film could have been a silent one, without even any intertitles (or just a few) and it would have worked. Or, you could even watch the film without any subtitles and you would have understood even if you don’t speak Czech or German. The character who talks the most is the lover, Adam, but this fits his character perfectly so it’s well justified.

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Oh, and there’s the controversy. That’s probably what gave a “reputation” to the film and why people still talk about it today. Ecstasy had the particularity to be the first non-pornographic film to portray sexual intercourse and female orgasm. Even though only the facial expressions are shown to us, it is enough to make us understand what’s happening and to create an erotic vibe around the scene. It surely gives place to imagination and just like it is not always necessary to talk, it is not always necessary to show everything. There’s also a scene where Hedy Lamarr runs naked in a field (oh la la!) that also contributed to the controversy of the film. But, honestly, today it feels quite harmless and I think we’ve seen “worst”. I mean, we’re all born naked! The interesting thing about these scenes (despite being actually a very small portion of the film) is the surprise effect they cause. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see nudity and sexuality on screen, but we surely feel a certain amazement to see that in a film of the 30s. I also think it adds a lot of realism to the film because, although we used to avoid showing sexuality of screen (yes, it was sometimes highly suggested in pre-code films), well it was happening in real life.

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The film can also be felt like a feminist one, not only because it shows female orgasm and sexuality (surprise: it exists!) but also because Hedy Lamarr’s character is one that is independent and able to make her own decision even if it implies certain sacrifices. What I liked also about this film is that female sexuality is shown in a respectful way and it doesn’t feel as if she was objectified.

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With Ecstasy, Hedy Lamarr offered us acting without any false pretensions. Natural and realistic, she was talented and beautiful by her simple humble presence. The film is a sad one, especially because nothing seems to work for the characters. It’s even more dramatic when this first scene that first feels like a comic one, soon is developed in an almost tragic one.

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I’m sure curious to see more of Hedy Lamarr’s films. She convinced me to be a capable actress and more than just a beaming beauty. And I’d also be curious to explore more of Aribert Mog’s work. Seriously, I don’t know much about him but, in Ecstasy, he has an incredible charisma. And seriously, he’s SO HANDSOME. That smile! I was melting. Unfortunately, he died on the Eastern front in 1940 at the still young age of 37.

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Many thanks to Samantha for hosting this blogathon! I was happy to finally see this film and felt very inspired by it. I’m impatient to read the other entries, and you can do so yourself by clicking here.

See you!

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